Your Body During a Breakup: The Science of a Broken Heart

Breakups are emotional roller coasters. Actually that’s not true. If a breakup was anything like a roller coaster the end would be visible from the start, you could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride and at the end of it, for a hefty sum the memory could be savoured forever with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo.

Breakups are are more like being under a roller coaster. 

Before we knew the science we knew the feeling, and used words associated with physical pain – hurt, pain, ache – are used describe the pain of a relationship breakup. Now we know why. The emotional pain of a breakup and physical pain have something in common – they both activate the same part of the brain

Brain scans of people recently out of a relationship have revealed that social pain (the emotional pain from a breakup or rejection) and physical pain share the same neural pathways.

In one study, 40 people who had recently been through an unwanted breakup had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of their exes and thought about the breakup. As they stared at the photos, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

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As explained by researcher Ethan Kross, ‘We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion.’

He continues, ‘These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.’

In further support of the overlap between physical and social pain, Tylenol (an over the counter medication for physical pain) has been shown to reduce emotional hurt.

Research has found that people who took Tylenol (an over-the-counter medication for physical pain) for three weeks reported less hurt feelings and social pain on a daily basis than those who took a placebo.

The effect was also evident in brain scans. When feelings of rejection were induced, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up in participants who didn’t take Tylenol. Those who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in that part of the brain.

Nobody is suggesting that the broken hearted turn to pain medication to reduce their lean towards Kleenex, Baskin-Robbins and repeated viewings of Love Actually. Long term use will cane the liver. Somebody else is waiting to fall in love with you, but you and your liver have to stay friends forever.

The Physical Side of a Broken Heart

The human brain loves love. Being in love takes the lid off the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, and the brain bathes in the bliss. But when the one you love leaves, the supply of feel good hormones takes a dive and the brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

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In small doses, stress hormones are heroic, ensuring we respond quickly and effectively to threat. However in times of long-term distress such as a broken heart, the stress hormones accumulate and cause trouble. Here’s what’s behind the physical symptoms of a breakup:

  • Too much cortisol in the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. They tense up ready to respond to the threat (fight or flight). However, without real need for a physical response the muscles have no opportunity to expend the energy.

    Muscles swell, giving rise to headaches, a stiff neck and that awful feeling of your chest being squeezed.

  • To ensure the muscles have an adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system.

    This can cause tummy trouble such as cramps, diarrhea or appetite loss. 

  • When stress hormones run rampant, the immune system can struggle, increasing vulnerability to bugs and illnesses.

    Hence the common ‘break-up cold’.

  • There is a steady release of cortisol.

    This might cause sleep problems and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgements 

  • Breakups activate the area of your brain that processes craving and addiction.

    Losing a relationship can throw you into a type of withdrawal, which is why it’s hard to function – you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him/her out of your head. Like any addiction, this will pass.

In a relationship, your mind, your body and the core of you adjust to being intimately connected someone. When that someone leaves, the brain has to readjust. The pain can be relentless but eventually the body chemistry will change back to normal and the hurt will diminish.

Getting through a breakup is as much a physical process as an emotional one. Remember that, and know that it will get easier. Keep going. You’ll get there.

438 Comments

James

A girl and I started talking in the summer. We were kind of forced into talking by mutual friends hooking us up even though I wasn’t already over my last relationship (a total disaster and given the person she was, I regret being so hurt by her). This new girl though was crazy about me and I wasn’t as much about her. After months of hanging out and trying to like her she went off to college. She then decided to leave me and once she left, I realized what I had lost. I fought for her back and finally changed her mind. From then on we were on and off about how we felt about each other. The girl I knew before college had changed and I didn’t realize why. She was constantly going to frat parties, ditching our weekend plans when her friends would all of a sudden hit her up, and trying to make me jealous. I had problems with her ex of three years still being on her instagram and she refused to take them down. It wasn’t insecurity, but I just felt like it should be taken down in respect for me. Our relationship seemed to be endless fighting and she ended up leaving me and I was okay with it, for a few months. We blocked each other on everything, and then one day she texted me and asked for me to unblock her. All my old emotions came back and I felt like I needed her. After a week of me blowing up her phone trying to win her back, she then told me she was seeing someone else and that I needed to let her be happy. Her dad texted me and told me to quit stalking and texting her. I feel so hopeless thinking I was the cause of such a toxic relationship. I feel like a controlling manipulator and a verbally abusive guy. I have called her names before that I regret completely. Even though we fought all the time over text, when we were in person everything went away and we even joked about our fights. I can’t help but feel I forced someone who really cared about me away. This is the worst feeling I have ever felt in my life, and I don’t see how I am going to come out of this. I would not wish this feeling on even my worst enemy. I wish I could have looked past things and been okay with things she did. The girl before college was the most amazing girl in the world and I can’t get it out of my head. I feel like I didn’t treat her right and that’s why it ended. I regret every fight and toxic thing we did. It truly feels like the end of the world. The thought of her finding someone who will treat her right and me being that guy that brought her down is the worst feeling in the world. I no longer have any motivation and I am at the lowest point I have ever been in my life. I don’t feel like a good guy and I wish I could have been there for her.

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adheha

..Plz don’t blame yourself .. you are a good guy and plz don’t forget different situations bring different personalities and as we grow and break we learn a lot abt ourselves…it has happened don’t punish yourself…de most important thing you are sorry and u hv realized ur mistakes ..that’s great thing cz most times we fail to admit our own mistakes …but you are not alone the right person will come into ur life ND am sure u will treat her de right way ..

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Anon

Damn, this explains a lot. It’s probably been a month since I decided to brake up with my boyfriend. He… wasn’t who I thought he was. He lied to my face and still hung out with his ex that ‘hurt him sooo much’. It caused me anxiety, every day having to face him, knowing he was doing all this.

And even after we broke it off, I tried to be good and friendly to him. Now he just sends messages about being back with his ex and how nice she is, and how am i going.

Help? I’ve already blocked him, but Is there any way to stop feeling pain, sadness and anger when he tries to talk to me?

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Nat

My partner ended our 2.5 year relationship almost 2 months ago. He says he loves me, and does actually act as though he does, but he cant cope with the fact I’m still friends with my ex. (We have a daughter together and he has always disliked that my ex is still around). We had no contact for around 4 weeks and I was totally crushed. Then his friend died aged 25 and he called me immediately and needed me there. We spent a couple of days together while I helped him with his grief and he said he was taking things one day at a time…never know what might happen in the future…was not looking to meet anyone else (he had always been a loner before we met)…he would kiss my forehead and stroke my arm. I do believe that he still loves me but just cant deal with my situation. He said he will always be there for me and I was the best thing that ever happened to him…but now I’ve not heard from him in a few days and it’s like my chest is being crushed in a vice all over again. I cry every day. I cant concentrate on anything. I cant eat. I literally CAN NOT think of anything other than him and I’m now worrying that I’m becoming obsessed and it’ll never go away. I cant see any future and I just cant live in this pain anymore. I’m also drinking more to numb it a little but cant do that forever.
I’m 43. Who’s going to want me? How do I ever find anyone else? I dont want to be alone. I hate it. I’m desperate for him to phone, be a friend, be in my life as he says he wants but I also know it will only prolong my pain. I really wish I could just delete him from everything, erase all memories of him and move on but I just dont have the strength to do that. I’m weak and pathetic. I know if he calls I’ll answer and would go over if he needed me because thats what stops the pain! The turmoil in my head is completely unbearable and I honestly dont know how long I can go on with the pain there all day every day.
He’s young, attractive, chatty, nice flat, no ties … he could have someone else anytime he wants (although deep down has gambling issues and significant mental health issues which he wouldnt show for a while) and that is killing me. Is he dating already? This is absolute, utter torture. When will it end?

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Marnita M

Hi I agree I’m really struggling with my boyfriend I feel it we emotional 😭 I have never been literally so hurt physically sick that I feel bugs crawling on me

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Ash.

Same here sis, it’s 5.52 am in the morning and I’m unable to sleep cz of all the pain and trauma I’m going through, it’s getting worse day by day.

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sad

i lived with my boyfriend for 6 years, we are deeply connected and we understand each other in a way no one else can. we are a part of each others family, we talked about how we would be together forever. idk what happened, he broke up with me last week. i feel like im going to die.

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Chloe

I feel everyone’s pain on this and I have reverted the same to ask google, how do I mend this broken heart feeling, I am currently in University studying a degree in Psychology and I can honesty tell you scientifically its the same process as grief. We will go through 5 different stages: Shock, Pain, Guilt, Depression, in the end its acceptance. I feel Lockdown and this pandemic has destroyed a lot of relationships including my own, it was me and him against lockdown and lockdown defeated us. The amount of weight I have lost due to this, moving out, finding my own place to live, all’s whilst grieving a person I called my Best Friend. There are so many ‘What ifs?’ running through my head. I have found comfort in reading all your replies knowing I am not the only one in this. Please can we reach out to each other.

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Ruby

I totally feel you . I am also going through the same situation, and it totally sucks. My emotions have been hard to cope with. The amount of stress I have been going through this year lead me to depression. Even worse after a break-up I totally lost myself, even worse. I don’t have anyone to vent to but a couple of friends and it sad because you are so use to a person being your best friend and there not there anymore. This feeling is way to ugly and knowing that they are having fun without you is just a shitty feeling, while you are suffering alone.

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Taylor B

Smh I feel the exact same way. He was my only friend..my best friend. The only person I want to run and talk to is the one that caused the pain. It’s so cruel

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buyorbye

I dated my boyfriend for two years and suddenly he had to leave me because the relationship is only suffocating him. I feel lost with his disappearance as if my body refuses to work like usual. I have no appetite. I can’t sleep at night. I keep having stomachache or even fever. Half of me is gone and I can no longer feel alive. Everytime I wake up, I always hope I die. I can’t really get through a day without crying. This pain and trauma haunts me everyday. I feel useless. I have an abandonment issue.

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Loryee

Dear Sad,
I understand your pain. A break up is always extremely heart breaking to the point we’re confusions starts to arise and your thoughts and emotions start racing 100 mph. At this point, you’re trying to find comfort. Desperately looking for answers and wanting to heal that broken heart! You’ll need to give it some space/time if you are or have tried reaching out to him and he isn’t giving you answers and is ignoring you. Give it a bit of a time you don’t want to push him further. I know it’s hard but, take this time to reflect and to look deep within yourself, the relationship, and his actions. Where there any indications in the relationship where you notice his behaviors being odd? Or did you see any subtle changes in terms of his demeanor towards you? or any comments that you can think of that might have led to the sudden break up and you might have missed those cues?! Or did you hear your ex expressing a certain issue and you didn’t think much of it? Did you feel him slowly distancing himself but you thought otherwise? Was he overwhelm in anyway maybe work, life, family that you might have missed? Did you pressure him in any subject he wasn’t ready for? Did you suspect any cheating on his part? The question that we all answers to is… WHY?! Why did he just walk away like that if things were good between you and him? Whatever that may be, again, I am not justifying your ex behaviors, of him all of a sudden leaving you the way he did. It’s wrong and he should of had the common courtesy to talk to you if you were together for that long. I believe everyone deserves an explanation no matter the length of time you’ve been with your loved one, partner or boyfriend. I hope when things settle down and you’ve gather your thoughts/emotions and he has too, that he realizes his error of his ways and will be willing to explain his reasoning. I hope that you get your answers for the sake of your well being.

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Keith T

Same my fiancé broke up with me after dating 9 years right as I got back from Italy. I was in the army as a paratrooper. My heart aches so badly and nothing is helping me to get over it. My whole life has been with her (high school sweethearts) and I just don’t know what to do. She said she needed time to get to know herself. I don’t know what that means to be honest.

Reply

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